Interview: Robbie LeBlanc, Director, Peta

After 10 years working as an accountant in London, Robbie LeBlanc gave up his job to travel around Australia, New Zealand and China. A few months later, he was the new director of the European branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

credit: David Devins
credit: David Devins

LeBlanc relates how his appointment was down to chance: Dan Matthews, vice-president of Peta US, was hawking his memoirs around the UK. LeBlanc, who met Matthews 20 years ago on a march in Washington, emailed him suggesting a drink in London, where they met and discussed corporate negotiation tactics. Matthews must have been impressed, because it led to a dinner invitation the next day.

By the end of the following evening, Matthews had decided LeBlanc must work for Peta. He was summoned to meet the organisation's directors at its headquarters in Virginia in April, and began the job this summer.

He admits the new role marks quite a change of direction. "But my previous job was about getting the best value for your investment - which is not that different, in my mind, from working out what Peta should be spending money on."

With a turnover of £2m a year, Peta Europe is the younger sibling to the much larger US body, which maintains a high profile partly because of the celebrities it courts and partly because of the stunts some of its activists pull without their clothes on. LeBlanc reels off some recent successes from across the Atlantic: KFC Canada has bowed to pressure to change its suppliers' methods of slaughter and has also put 'vegan chicken nuggets' on its menus. And Gap has promised to stop sourcing leather from developing countries.

He wants to replicate these successes in the UK, and has had meetings with supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury's. One campaign is to promote 'controlled atmosphere killing' (gassing) of chickens - quite a compromise, he admits, for a strictly vegetarian organisation. He won't dismiss direct action as a campaigning tool, but prefers negotiation.

"Getting one company to move towards better practices could set a standard for others to follow," says LeBlanc. "With direct action, you might be able to convince one board member, but unless the press is there to hammer them, companies aren't going to change that easily."

He thinks that consumer power has a wider reach. "People feel disenfranchised from political systems, but being consumers is the one way in which they can feel in control," he says.

LeBlanc thinks young people are more receptive to animal rights issues and plans to build up Peta's youth wing in the UK by increasing the organisation's presence at music festivals and surfing events.

His conversion to vegetarianism came in his teens. While growing up in a family of farmers and oil industry workers in Louisiana, he saw a pig being slaughtered as part of a festival. "It was a tornado of terror, an orchestra of screaming," he says. He can also give specific details of how, for example, the heads of mice are cut off with scissors in labs.

He offers no specific plans for reforming the law that requires new products to be tested on two species of animal, but confirms that Peta US has spent $760,000 (£380,000) in recent years on the development of research methods that do not use animals.

LeBlanc doesn't see any major differences between the American and British third sectors. "But the way the press handle stuff here is a lot more sophisticated," he says. "In the US, the media voice is more fragmented, perhaps because of the geography. There are more groups here vying for attention - in the US, Peta is the biggest."

2008: Director, Peta Europe
2003: Finance manager, Guardian Media Group
2001: Financial accountant, Guardian Media Group
1999: Financial analyst, Guardian Media Group
1997: Assistant financial analyst, Guardian Media Group.

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